TERF Wars: Trans Women and Feminist Extremism in Context

Last week I wrote about the ongoing war raging between a subset of radical lesbian feminists called trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERFs, and the transgender community. I'd like to take the opportunity to put that in deeper context than I had room to manage last week.

There have been a number of waves of American feminism in the past half-century. The first, which developed in the early '60s, can best be summed up by the movement's catchphrase: "Biology is not destiny." That's the feminist culture in which I came of age. It's also the culture that provided support for Professor John Money at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine to begin offering transition services, including surgery, for trans women in 1966. I read of it in Newsweek that December.

While Dr. Money believed, incorrectly, that gender is completely socially constructed, he was motivated to provide relief to hundreds of American trans women for whom treatment had previously required international travel. The belief that biology is not destiny allowed the cultural change to occur in which such gender transitions were possible. Surgeons were always manipulating anatomy, so why not genital anatomy? The only real roadblock was the inherent prudishness and religiosity of an inherently conservative medical establishment, but the '60s were a time when boldness and courage were being rewarded. It also didn't hurt that there was scientific research upon which one could base one's clinical actions, as Dr. Harry Benjamin had rescued the work of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld from Nazi Germany and set up practice in New York. (The best history of the trans phenomenon is provided by author Deborah Rudacille in her book The Riddle of Gender: Science, Activism and Transgender Rights.)

Hope for a future where one could adapt one's anatomy to conform to one's mind took hold in those years with the development of cultural spaces both within and without the growing gay communities of America. There were uprisings at Compton's Cafeteria in San Francisco and the Stonewall Inn in New York. I was one of many who began to see possibilities of future happiness, and some women took the plunge, with remarkable courage even for that era.

Unfortunately, that era turned into the chaotic '70s, when the conservative backlash began. From Richard Nixon and Pat Buchanan to Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, the change in cultural authority led to the shutdown of the Hopkins program by the infamous Professor Paul McHugh. That conservative backlash infected the feminist community as well, generating a second wave of women who withdrew from society in general, and from men in particular, as best as they could, and for whom biology again became destiny. That second wave included many lesbians, who, at times, were reacting to their own oppression and rejection by the feminist political community. To be fair, they didn't know many trans women (Sandy Stone's experience at Olivia Records being a notable exception), because few were out and active in those circles in the '70s. They had no access to the science of gender identity, when they cared at all about "patriarchal science," and, as a result, they found it very easy to weave into their philosophy the idea that trans women are "the avant-garde of the patriarchy's invasion of women's spaces." Such an absurd belief can only come from deep feelings of worthlessness and insecurity, particularly when directed against a community that accounts for only 0.3 percent of the population and has absolutely no political or economic power. But they promoted their philosophy, which was welcomed by the radical religious right, to deny health care to trans women, in a manner eerily familiar to the current day.

While the conservative backlash continued through the Reagan and Bush years, the cultural pendulum began to swing back. The AIDS crisis galvanized a growing gay consciousness, and battling over trans women became a trivial distraction. Dying due to an infection was dying, whether you were gay or trans. The '90s saw research clearly grounding the reality of gender identity in basic neuroscience, and trans activism rose again. While still without economic power, trans activists developed a sense of possibility and, with it, political power. The tipping point for me was when the community stood up to Dr. Michael Bailey upon publication of his pseudoscientific and transphobic The Man Who Would be Queen in 2003. Led by Professor Lynn Conway, one of America's foremost engineers and inventors, the community defended its integrity and showed the Institute of Medicine and Bailey's colleagues, including Dr. Ray Blanchard, that we were no longer silent and powerless. While the battle in the scientific community is not complete, since Ray Blanchard was able to promote his absurd, politically motivated autogynephilia theory into the DSM 5, everything else has changed.

We've had two decades of scientific research confirming the existence of gender identity and the overwhelming success of social and physical gender reassignment. That data has led the AMA, both APAs (the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association) and other medical associations to acknowledge the trans reality, and to support full trans health care and antidiscrimination protections. There is no longer any scientific argument against the simple fact that trans women are women, and trans men are men.

As I've previously discussed, the trans community has won consistently in the courts since 2009, most importantly with the EEOC's Macy decision in 2012 and the victories that ensued over the past two years. Most recently, this past week, two cases involving trans men have come to successful outcomes.

Nevertheless, while the feminist community has moved on to a third, more egalitarian wave, the generation schooled by Janice Raymond and Mary Daly lives on, fighting a rearguard action and continuing to destroy the lives of people who have nothing to do with them. The difference this time is that, while the generation of radical scholars who believe this nonsense and promote hate live on, the trans community has found its voice and its power. The feminist remnant is now backed into a corner of its own making, abandoned by lesbians who want no part in exclusion and hate speech. As it has with marriage equality, the younger generation has no idea what the fuss is about and considers this resistance insane.

We who have transitioned and radically transformed our lives have done so in order to live more authentically. Those who oppose us are also living their truths, though those truths lead to fear and, fortunately for the world at large, increasing isolation. Having lived in fear for many decades, I would not wish that life on anyone. If the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival is the last bastion of this radical exclusivity, I wish them well and hope they enjoy the experience.